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Solar irrigation and refrigeration - improving incomes in Zimbabwe

Posted by John Magrath Programme Researcher

9th Jul 2015

Showing off a bumper crop of green vegetables at Mazuru market garden. Credit: John Magrath/ Oxfam
Solar energy is transforming livelihoods in Zimbabwe from labour saving irrigation for crops to refrigeration for fresh produce. In the third in a series of blog posts about the impact of solar energy, John Magrath, Programme Researcher, explains how farming communities have been able to dramatically increase their yields and incomes.

Water is life, and access to water is fundamental to the fertility of farmlands and the prosperity of their farmers. But getting water from A to B can be a backbreaking task.

At Mazuru market garden in Gutu district of Zimbabwe, neat rows of vegetables stretch for hundreds of yards, forming a rich green carpet. The women working there proudly hold up and show off the fruits of their labours for the visitor to admire. But it is indeed hard labour that has produced this harvest, and one of the hardest and most time-consuming labours of all is fetching water.

Each woman has 11 rows allocated and in the dry season each row needs watering every day. Each woman has a walk of some 400 metres to the dam and then back, carrying a bucket of water on her head. It takes two to three trips to properly water one row, so it may be necessary to make 20 to 30 journeys to the lake each day. With a heavy bucket of water on her head a woman may walk 4 kilometres or more. This can take a gruelling six hours; women will start watering at 7 a.m. and not finish until 1 p.m. That leaves little time for all the other essential work of hoeing, weeding and tending to the plants - and cultural norms dictate that they are also responsible for the household cooking and cleaning. They had a diesel pump that used to provide water to the garden but they couldn't afford the rising cost of diesel, and eventually the pump broke down.With a heavy bucket of water on her head a woman may walk 4 kilometres or more.

Now the women have decided to use the money in their Community Energy Fund to buy a solar water pump which Oxfam is going to install. Jonathan Njerere, Oxfam Programme Manager, explains that with a solar pump women will be able to come to the site at mid-day when the tank has filled up and be able to water their gardens within an hour or two. And of course the gardeners will not have to pay for diesel.

The women of Gomba village have been at the forefront of the solar energy programme and have raised almost $17,000 in their fund to reinvest in solar energy products, including a solar fridge for their fish farming enterprise. The benefits of solar have been more than economic. As one of the women says, "this has challenged us to use our minds and be innovative in terms of raising funds that we can contribute to the group, and now even the appearance of our households looks better". 

Solar water pumping is one aspect of a four-year long programme led by Oxfam called RuSED, the Rural Sustainable Energy Development Programme, funded by the EC and by Oxfam, that aims to not only provide people with electricity but devise ways in which they can maintain the solar systems after Oxfam has gone. One crucial way is to use the electricity for production and income generation.

The potential of irrigation is being realised on an even bigger scale at the Ruti dam irrigation site. There 60 hectares are being watered and cultivated and the results have been remarkable, and demonstrate the way 270 smallholder farmers who were previously growing little more than subsistence crops of maize can feed themselves, earn income and benefit their neighbours. "Our lives have changed significantly in all aspects. We are eating well and we are healthy and strong..."

Two thirds of the Ruti scheme benefit from gravity-fed irrigation and now a third phase of production is well under way using two solar booster pumps that pump water to a night storage reservoir.

Irrigation enables farmers to grow three crops a year, and rotate crops to grow a diversity of food crops and cash crops like potatoes and sugar beans. Jeffrey Chara, irrigation scheme Treasurer, said:

"This year we have harvested four to five tons of maize per hectare but we have harvested nothing on our dry land plots because of the drought because of climate change - and that is on top of the other bad drought recently [2013]".

He says: "Our lives have changed significantly in all aspects. We are eating well and we are healthy and strong and we are working together as a family, husband and wife".

An Oxfam evaluation in 2012 found that household incomes had increased by 286% for the very poor, 173% for the poor and 47% for the middle income groups.

The scheme also hosts an Energy Kiosk powered by rooftop solar panels which is providing cold storage. Across Gutu district similar Energy Kiosks that Oxfam has supported are enabling other enterprises to take off, from sewing to shops able to open for longer, while solar panels on the roofs enable the kiosks to earn a regular income from recharging lantern and mobile phone batteries. 

In this way Oxfam aims to help people create a 'solar system' in the district that will be self-sustaining as it enables people to increase production and expand enterprise, and bring in income to pay for more solar products and to maintain them. The hope is that this will be a model for other rural off-grid communities throughout the country and influence the government's rural electrification and renewable energy strategies.

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  • Read more blogs on innovation
  • View our publications about Zimbabwe

    Photo: Showing off a bumper crop of green vegetables at Mazuru market garden. Credit: John Magrath/Oxfam

Blog post written by John Magrath

Programme Researcher

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John Magrath